William Byron Manages Championship 4 Berth After "Hell in A Bottle" Martinsville Race
After innumerable factors played against William Byron in Sunday's Xfinity 500 at Martinsville, the Hendrick Motorsports driver clawed his way into the Championship 4 with a 13th-place finish.
After collecting a series-high six victories, William Byron has accomplished the goal that every NASCAR Cup Series driver has to start every season - traveling to Phoenix Raceway in November with a shot at the championship.
The 25-year-old driver has been successful in doing just that, putting together the best season of his six-year career at NASCAR's top level to put the Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 back in the Championship 4.
But, Sunday's race at Martinsville proved to be among the hardest of his young career, and at various points saw the Charlotte, North Carolina native in legitimate danger of elimination, despite entering Sunday's race 30 points above the cutline.
It was, as they call it, a perfect storm: between record-breaking ambient temperatures, an ill-handing Chevrolet, a faulty helmet hose, and a severe lack of track position, all coupled with the additional pressure of the NASCAR Playoffs, Sunday's already lengthy race felt like "hell in a bottle" for the driver.
Despite being somewhat optimistic about his car after practice on Saturday, Byron says the energy surrounding the remainder of the weekend filtered into nervousness, especially after qualifying in the middle of the pack.
"When we qualified the way we did - I was so nervous sleeping last night, I don't think I said a word to Erin on the way here in the car, I was so nervous," Byron explained. "I had the feeling in my stomach. It's nothing against all the work we put in, but I just didn't have the feeling in the car that I wanted, and I knew it was going to be battle, but when you kind of get in those battles, I think you underestimate how hard it's going to be."
Starting 16th, Byron was unable to move forward enough in the race's opening stage to collect the all-important points awarded to the top-10 finishers. Meanwhile, his two Championship 4 rivals, Hamlin and Blaney, finished 1-2.
In the second stage, not only did things not improve, they got drastically worse, when the handling of the No. 24 Chevrolet deteriorated even more, dropping Byron from a top-15 spot, outside of the top-20.
Byron and Rudy Fugle, the crew chief of the No. 24, then had to pivot, throwing out the original goal of scoring stage points, just to allow the team to work on getting the car somewhat competitive in the second half of the race.
As the Charlotte, North Carolina-native began inching closer and closer to the front of the field, he was staying informed on his situation when it came to advancing to the Championship 4.
Hamlin and Blaney, both cars in the thick of the battle to advance, had the quickest cars in the field, and traded the lead back and forth on several occasions, which continuously changed the scenario for Byron.
When Blaney was out front, Byron was racing against Hamlin and could advance with a finish of 18th or better. But, if Hamlin got to the lead, the driver of the No. 24 would have to go past Blaney, which wasn't going to happen, barring an issue.
The 500-lap contest, which was already grueling enough, then went into the longest run a NASCAR Cup Series event at Martinsville has seen in more than 25 years, 168 laps straight to the finish.
Ultimately, that played to Byron's benefit, as the teams that chose to stay out under the final caution of the race, had to make green-flag pit stops in the race's closing laps, awarding positions to the No. 24.
No matter the situation, good or bad, the voice of Rudy Fugle could be heard over the radio of the Hendrick Motorsports driver, even moreso in the closing laps when you could hear the exhaustion in Byron's voice, coaching him to the end of the 500-lap gauntlet to take his spot in the Championship 4.
"He knows how to push the buttons for sure," Byron said about Fugle. "I trust him like a brother, he's known me since I was an infant in racing at 18 years old, and he knows all my strengths and weaknesses, and I believe in him."
Finishing 13th, one lap down to race-winner Ryan Blaney, Byron ended up with an eight-point advantage over Denny Hamlin, who could only drive through the off-strategy cars to score a third-place finish.
Upon making it back to pit road, a worn-out William Byron emerged from his PODS Chevrolet and immediately sat on the ground, collecting his thoughts and catching his breath after what ended up being a difficult race.
"It was kind of hell in a bottle," Byron said in a post-race media interview. "I've never been so bad in a racecar, I've never wanted to get out so much, I've never been so frustrated at the car - how loose I was, how tight I was in spots, I just had no grip and it's tough to do that."
Even after starting his conversation with media members, the shade of red on Byron's face matched that of the PODS branding on his racecar, as his helmet hose was unable to deliver him fresh air - an issue he had at Martinsville earlier in the year, as well.
"I've never been [impacted this heavily]," Byron said after the race. "Maybe, when I first started racing and wasn't fit enough, wasn't in race shape and all those things. I started training, and sure, I could be a lot more fit than I am, be a bodybuilder or something, but I just couldn't get fresh air in my helmet, my face was so red."
Despite the gnarly battle that Byron was able to fight through in running 500 laps with no fresh air in his helmet, and trying to fight and claw his way into the Championship 4 with an ill-handling car, the driver still remained confident in his team and their capabilities.
"We have to go back to the drawing board, we trusted our sim a lot, I feel like, and it didn't work out, and we were struggling, but we can turn it around and Phoenix we just have to trust what we've done there in the past, and have a lot of work to do this week, and look at our notes, but we won there in the past and feel like we'll be good."
Byron will be fighting against Christopher Bell, Kyle Larson, and Ryan Blaney next weekend at Phoenix Raceway, and even though the competition is bound to be tough, the driver looking for his first title is convinced the competition will be fair.
“I trust all three guys that I race against, so I don’t feel like – we race super hard, Ryan [Blaney] and I do, and we have a great level of respect off-the-track, so do I with honestly every guy in the final four, I have a good relationship with," Byron said about his fellow Championship 4 drivers. "So I’m not worried about crashing them or anything, just race as hard as we can, try to get track position, but the best car is going to win.”
Byron, 25, is the youngest of the four drivers in the Championship 4 this year, and one of two that will have their vehicle prepared by Hendrick Motorsports - the winningest team in the NASCAR Cup Series.
Is this the season that the illustrious legacy of Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 has a brand-new chapter written, with a different driver? If the grind of Sunday is any indication, the odds could be in Byron's favor.
Image Credit: Chris Owens, HHP, Courtesy of Chevy Racing